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‘When Marnie Was There”: Last-ever anime film from Studio Ghibli?

Written By | Jul 9, 2015

WASHINGTON, July 09, 2015 – In the opening scene of “When Marnie Was There,” Anna is first encountered sitting by herself on a bench. It happens that she is not only detached from the kids at her school. Peacefully, seated by herself and drawing in her sketchbook, we get the sense that she’s off in another world while watching the current world pass by.

When a teacher comes by and casually pierces her bubble by asking to see her sketches, Anna is slowly gripped by an asthmatic fit before she’s able even to utter another word. It’s implied that the asthma attack has been brought on by stress. But whatever the case, she’s whisked off to the hospital in short order.

Simple and straightforward, this opening scene says everything about where this 12-year old girl exists in space and time, and also gives us some insight as to how she perceives the world around her.

Anna's entrance.

Anna enters a strange new world, lush with new life and possibilities. (Screen shot of trailer for “When Marnie Was There.”)

Originally titled “Memories of Marnie,” this 2014 Japanese anime film − written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and produced by Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli − is based on the Joan G. Robinson novel, “When Marnie Was There.” The English-dubbed version of the film—which adopts the novel’s original title—opened in the U.S. in late May-early June and is currently showing at select American movie houses.

Aside from its keen interest for fans of anime, “When Marnie Was There” has significant interest in the cultural landscape. It’s very likely the last film we’ll get from Studio Ghibli. Maybe forever, but definitely for the foreseeable future.

After the 2014 retirement of studio visionary Hayao Miyazaki, the popular Japanese animation studio decided to restructure and take account of where it was going. Such a self-assessment was inevitable, considering how much weight was carried by Miyazaki’s personal film efforts and how much input and control he exerted even on the studio films he wasn’t directing.

The upshot of it all is that “When Marnie Was There,” Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second directorial effort here, very possibly the final chapter for Studio Ghibli, giving the film genuinely historic interest as well.

“When Marnie Was There” is very much a coming of age story, exploring in detail Anna’s unique departure from childhood, just before her teenage years come storming in.

The fact that Anna is on the cusp of her teens and moving toward young adulthood should result in a compelling narrative, although in this film, this underlying theme isn’t dealt with perhaps as thoroughly as it should have been. Being on the cusp of the teenage years when anyone stops thinking they should be a child or at least considered as one.

So many things happen in this brief time span that the emotional weight of it all on such a young, fragile mind as Anna’s can seem to carry the weight the world. It’s at this time when the rarely discussed but very real loneliness of childhood can seep into a young person’s head when a sense of isolation, whether it’s self-imposed or not, can feel overwhelming.

Early in the film, Anna – voiced in the English version by Hailee Steinfeld –explains her viewpoint further. For Anna, the world is divided by an invisible line that groups all individuals. But she is convinced she stands prominently on the outside of that line and as a result feels irrevocably cut off from the rest of humanity.

It’s from this point that the story line of the film slowly reveals the reasons for Anna’s sense of isolation – and there are more than one might initially imagine. Her quiet interactions with other characters sell this point, something that’s explored further as she is sent to stay with relatives of her foster mother in Kushiro, Japan.

It’s there that every aspect of Anna’s life changes. Most notably, when she arrives in the country, her change of venue seems to clear up her problems with asthma, both in a literal and figurative sense.

Anna is a lonely character. She’s constantly trapped in her own head, feeling distanced from everyone including her foster mother and absent (at least in the film) foster father, from anyone her own age, and actually, anyone she comes across in life. That is, until the magical night she meets Marnie, the 13 year old girl she encounters at a mysterious waterfront mansion after the tide comes in. When Anna meets Marnie, Anna’s sense of isolation begins to vanish.

But is Marnie real? Or is she simply a product of Anna’s otherworldly imagination? At no point during the feature does Yonebayashi encourage the audience believe that Marnie is anything more than an apparition. Yet the situation in the context of the film is disquieting.

We find it hard to believe Marnie isn’t real because that certainly doesn’t seem true. Clearly, she definitely occupies a tangible place in the world and in Anna’s life. As the film moves forward, the details of this deepening mystery become clearer and more definitive, but everything is played close to the vest. Yonebayashi works with great subtlety, which is never more apparent than when Anna and Marnie are interacting with one another.

There’s always been a strong European Impressionist feel to the way Studio Ghibli films are drawn. In recent years, this has come to the forefront. Visually, “When Marnie Was There” almost appears to be a love letter by the studio to Claude Monet, given its extensive use of a soft yet vibrant color palette.

The connection with Impressionism almost become overt during a scene in which Anna comes in contact with a local painter named Hisako, whose painting of the mysterious mansion is obviously influenced by Monet. The film’s pastel vibrancy seems to intensify when Anna makes the transition to the world in which Marnie lives from the present-day Kushiro.

The direct transition from a bright color field to an early morning grayish fog visually seems as if it’s coming straight out of Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby,” occurring in this case every time Marnie makes her presence felt. Anna is never consciously aware of these changes, but a sense of energy and expectation can clearly be felt whenever the fog lifts.

The visual imagery serves to underscore Anna’s excitement whenever she is around Marnie. At these times, Anna does not feel alone anymore, and the understanding of this hits with blunt force. It’s the first time Anna can remember being happy or even having anyone to be around to willingly chum around with her at all.

So much of Yonebayashi’s work in “When Marnie Was There” is hidden and subtle. He relies heavily on contextual clues, rarely holding the audience’s hand as he gets them from point A to point B, expecting them to catch up once they’re there. In each scene – and even in each frame – substantial information is available in the visuals, presented on screen in the form of unstated emotions, much as a classic painting tells deeper stories that what one sees on the surface. The entire package perfectly captures the emotional nuances involved in being a pre-teen awkwardly evolving into teen/young adult dealing with complex emotional experiences.

This is illustrated most acutely when Anna is asked to join the local overachieving Nobuko at the Tanabata festival. Anna is subtly pushed into this by her well-meaning relatives, and Nobuko is earnest in trying to include Anna. But there is obliviousness to Anna as she chafes against her discomfort.

This persistent sense of alienation and her inability to compromise with it finally comes to a head when she is unintentionally forced confront Nobuko about it. Anna verbally accosts Nobuko when she’s being poked and prodded, however gently, into doing something against her will. While her reaction noticeably stings, Nobuko is able to counter it by coyly implying he knows something about Anna’s mixed heritage.

While never specifically stated, Nobuko’s observation becomes important when all the movie’s secrets are finally laid out on the table, namely that Anna must possess some recent American/European ancestry, something made obvious by her blue eyes. This realization, however, serves to bringing out Anna’s insecurities even more strongly, making her feel undesirable. The emotional scars cut deep for both of them.

On the surface, Anna is not the most likeable heroine, something clearly evidenced by how quick she is to insult Nobuko, just as she is caustically short with most people she encounters. But in a broader sense, this is a subtle yet keen detail, a characteristic of nearly any child who is suffering from depression.

Anna’s limited perspective means she is even less capable of voicing her problems openly and forthrightly, since the emotions she’s dealing with don’t feel natural to her. Such emotions are actually common in children and young adults approximately her age. But that’s something she doesn’t know. For that reason, rather than deal with the emotions when one or more individuals inadvertently arouse them, she simply cuts off everyone defensively before they can get to her.

It’s only when she discovers she is clearly loved by Marnie that she’s able to open up, not just to Marnie but to everyone who obviously cares about her – everyone she had closed off before she comes to this quiet epiphany.

What deepens this film’s complexity is the simple fact that its flawed heroine is not the only one who’s mired in a complex web of feelings and emotions. Even though Anna is at the center of the film, she’s not alone in just how isolated she feels.

Every character in the film is suffering or dealing with some kind of emptiness in his or her heart. This only becomes apparent to Anna once her entire history is laid out in front her, connecting her with Kushiro but also with her own past—the one she never knew about. Anna is only able to see the fullness of life in everyone around her once the actual and metaphorical fog has finally lifted from her own mind.

Yonebayashi has the rare ability to deftly coax forth the precise yet subtly chaotic emotions of a young person who, for the first time, is forced by the ongoing pageant of life to deal with a complicated personal trauma. That’s the innate beauty of this film, which artfully renders one individual’s unique reality in a beautifully rendered cinematic display of magical realism.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.